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9th Sun. after Pentecost

Either/Or, or Both/And (God’s All-Inclusive Love), Matthew 15:(10-20) 21-28, Aug.14, 2011

In South Carolina, the Greenville County Department of Social Services sent this letter to Philip Fleming:

"Your food stamps will be stopped effective March 1992, because we received notice that you passed away," … You may reapply if there is a change in your circumstances."
                                                                
-As quoted in Health, January-February 1993, 56.
If there is no change in our circumstances, then we are dead indeed.

Change is inevitable. The only thing certain in life is change.

In the 19th and early 20th century, some missionaries tried to Christianize foreign cultures by trying to change their culture. Western missionaries, with exceptions, tried to Americanize or Europeanize exotic cultures.

Popular writer James Michener captures this in his novel Hawaii. His character, Abner Hale, despised the native Hawaiian's culture and traditions. He sought to change them, not so much into Christians, as into 19th century New Englanders.

But in general, Christianity has succeeded worldwide because of its ability to change and adapt in the face of new cultures and peoples. A Christian in Japan will look, act, worship and pray differently from a Christian in Africa or a Christian in Latin America.

Most comments made by people in foreign mission fields are about the unique beauty and fascinating lives and cultures of the people with whom they work and live. More than one sensitive missionary has confessed almost guiltily, "I learn so much more from them than they do from me."

"As today's passage begins, Jesus leaves the shores of the Sea of Galilee and travels to a region that is considered to be unclean in Jewish eyes. Tyre and Sidon, or Phoenicia (what today is part of Lebanon), was outside the established boundaries of Israel.

It was an area predominantly populated with pagans and other suspect characters; the kind of people no good Jew would associate with. Yet Jesus walks boldly into this foreign land.

This was a time Jesus wanted to avoid the hostility of the scribes & Pharisees. It was getting close to the time of his betrayal and crucifixion and he wanted some time with his disciples.

It doesn't take long for one of the locals to discover his presence. Matthew defines this person as a 'Canaanite' woman - emphasizing her heritage. She is among the earliest inhabitants of this region. “Canaanite” meant a long-hardened pagan and a long-time enemy of Jewish faith in One God. Socially, Jesus' encounter with a Canaanite is unacceptable, but with a Canaanite woman, even more so.

Yet, this should not be surprising when we consider that the first missionary was God himself. (Yahweh, Jehovah) When God spoke to Abraham, it was to convey not just knowledge of yet another deity, but to introduce a whole new concept to humanity – monotheism (the worship/belief in One God).

The whole idea of only one God was considered ridiculous – atheistic, for that matter - by ancient peoples. They perceived their world as one filled with malevolent and benevolent spirits.

Author David Burnett reminds us of just how flexible and patient Yahweh was as this new concept of one God was slowly nurtured in Hebrew hearts. Burnett observes that "the process of communication must work from within the existing cultural forms for them to be meaningful and relevant for the people." We have to talk their language—be able to relate to them.

Starting "within a people's existing intellectual framework of deity, (their view of God) ... the omnipotent God, Yahweh accepted the early Israelites at their level of conceptual understanding.

Burnett continues:
God is willing to accept people at the point where they are, with the understanding that they have, and transform those concepts. (That’s hope for all of us!)

The commandment to have "no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3) seems to imply that the early Israelites did believe in the existence of gods other than Yahweh.

Jonah seems to have assumed that he could avoid having to follow God's command by running away. Ancient peoples believed that each region had its own gods. Its possible Jonah was running from God's territory and into the territory of some other god.

These cases may indicate that the early Israelites had a less than ideal understanding of God. What’s important, though, is that God was willing to work with them from where they were; / accepting where they were. The acceptance of other so-called-gods is different than worshiping other gods.

God was not willing to accept those who worshiped Baal. "Apparently God was (and is) willing to tolerate belief in other gods but not devotion to them." An allegiance to another god is an unacceptable starting point. It demands a change of allegiance before God's process of transformation can begin." (David Burnett, Clash of Worlds [Eastbourne, Eng.: Monarch, 1990], 244-45)

It is only over a period of time, the Israelites learn to change their concept of what monotheistic worship of God was to be like. Yahweh nurtured the Jews in their faithfulness, gradually opening their minds and hearts to larger and more complete portraits of truth.

Transformation of the people of Israel continues for almost 2000 years. The God of the OT dealt with a people. Now Jesus comes as missionary to the people of his time. And Jesus comes not only to a people, but to individuals. God made the ultimate sacrifice by coming to Earth as a man. God loved us so much that He sent his only Son that we might live.

It is that life, the living, lively faith that the Canaanite woman and Jesus share that makes possible Jesus' apparent change of mind about the status of Gentiles in his mission.

Yet, in changing his perspective, Jesus does not compromise the special nature of his relationship with Israel. Jesus did not negate his call to the nation of Israel by extending the gospel to the Gentiles. It’s not either/or, but both/and.

Modern sensibilities insisted that knowledge came in neat packets of "either/or." Either something was black, or something was white. Either Jesus came to proclaim the kingdom of God to Israel, or, Jesus came to offer a (covenant) relationship with God to all humanity - Jew and Gentile. The two are not in opposition.

Jesus was called to the Israelites, but extended himself to this desperate woman. Her need was great, but her faith was greater.

Jesus conversation with the woman often troubles post-modern sensibilities. Jesus had to stay within Jewish norms in order to “fulfill all righteousness” but as William Barclay exegetes this text, consider,

Jesus:  the tone and the look, a disarming smile, make all the difference. Friends will refer to each other as “rascal”, or you old so-and-so, with a smile or a wink.

Dogs: diminutive (kunaria) not street dog,--but household pet; in a sense, part of the family.

Woman: had a quick, logical Greek mind,--even doggies eat crumbs off the table

She seemed to have insight into the larger picture of Jesus’ call to the nation of Israel. Just as other Gentiles, she was drawn to Him and sensed his love and mercy for individuals.

Jesus responded to the power of God's presence throughout the course of his ministry. He went to the sick, the poor, the outcast and even the Gentiles. He didn’t set out to heal this woman’s daughter—he was just looking for some down-time.

For Jesus, as for all who open themselves up to God's spirit, God's purpose remained a consistent, guiding force, but one that was revealed more fully and coherently as Jesus’ life and ministry progressed. The width and breadth of God’s plan of salvation widened and deepened until “veil was rent” on Calvary.

We are ever called to change as God’s Spirit quickens and renews us. Is our congregation willing to change its mind but keep the good of previous changes? Are we able to reach out expectantly for the future without throwing away any of your valuable past?

Who are the Gentiles in our world? Are they the body-piercing generation, those behind bars, Haiti’s children? Why is it so difficult to attract young people to the average church service? Are they perceived as culturally strange, mysterious, or not to be trusted? Too often Christians don’t socialize with non-Christians on a regular basis. How can we possible know what needs and hurts they carry and how we might be able to reach them with God’s love?

How can our congregation open its doors ever wider to the new "Gentiles," the outcasts, the outlaws, the outsiders without making long-time members feel abandoned or taken for granted?

These are questions I’ll leave you to ponder and pray about. May God direct our faith and our steps. Amen. 

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